St Martin-in-the-Fields probably hosts more performances of The Four Seasons than any venue in London, a programme favourite for candlelight concerts designed to lure in tourists from nearby Trafalgar Square. No disrespect to its regular ensembles, but the church can’t have hosted many more polished performances of Vivaldi’s crowd-pleaser than this one by the leading American period instrument orchestra, Apollo’s Fire. Or, indeed, many that have been so animated. 

Francisco Fullana and Apollo's Fire
© Sisi Burn

Opening a mini-residency, the Cleveland-based Baroque band played its Four Seasons – Rediscovered programme. It’s a slick show, right from the choreographed entrance down the nave to the sanctuary. Dressed in black, but accessorised with glints of gold – a scarf, a belt or a brooch – the ensemble knows how to “sell” its performances: beaming smiles, megawatt levels of engagement and a well-rehearsed, slightly twee spoken introduction to each concerto by director Jeanette Sorrell, complete with musical illustrations as signposts through the score. Earnest customer service. Would you like fries with your Vivaldi, Sir? 

Sorrell asked the audience to connect this familiar music back to 17th-century Italian peasant life, but there was a lack of earthiness to much of Spring: birds chirruped sweetly, streams murmured, even the dog’s barking sounded gentle. But the cello drones imitating peasant bagpipes sparked the performance into life, from which point it never looked back. 

Apollo's Fire
© Sisi Burn

Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana, gold peacock feather motifs emblazoned on the back of his baggy jacket, proved a lively soloist, his sound beautifully focussed but entering the spirit of this programmatic music. Although Apollo’s Fire never sacrificed their impeccable intonation to roughen their sound like some Italian period instrument groups, their playing was full of vigour and alertness. Summer’s pesky insects buzzed with playing close to the violins’ bridges, storms erupted with frantic strumming from theorbo and Baroque guitar, gunshots ricocheted in Autumn’s fox-hunt. The pizzicato raindrops were a touch gentle, but the escapades on the slippery ice – Sorrell explained how winters are bitter in Cleveland – provided a thrilling finale. 

Ironically, the concerto that could have benefited from a spoken introduction – Vivaldi’s only Double Cello Concerto – received none. In G minor, its turbulent outer movements were brilliantly combative, contrasting the dark, gruff tone of René Schiffer’s cello with the slender elegance of Mimé Yamahiro Brinkmann’s. They duetted seductively in the Largo, then duelled energetically in the finale, closing with their bows in swordplay. 

Francisco Fullana, Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe
© Sisi Burn

The evening was framed by Marco Uccellini’s Bergamasca and Vivaldi’s infectious take on La Follia in arrangements by Sorrell. The latter included plenty of stage choreography for concertmaster Alan Choo and assistant concertmaster Emi Tanabe, with William Simm (guitar) cutting into their dance only to be shooed away. A Turkish folk dance, Sorrell on tambourine, closed this thoroughly entertaining performance.